LeBreton’s war of words heats up
Tumultuous backroom bargaining over funding a National Hockey League arena on LeBreton Flats spilled into the public on Wednesday, with Mayor Jim Watson saying the Ottawa Senators wanted property taxpayers to pay for construction and the hockey club maintaining it never demanded that the city build a sports facility.Answering reporters questions after a council meeting, Watson said the hockey club made the request in initial discussions with city staff, right after RendezVous LeBreton Group, the consortium led by the Senators’ company Capital Sports Management Inc. (CSMI) and Trinity Developments, won preferred status in a development competition run by the National Capital Commission.The Senators chief operating officer Nicolas Ruszkowski fired back, calling Watson’s comments “disappointing and inaccurate.”“At city hall’s own urging, the partners in (RendezVous) took part in preliminary discussions that were characterized as strictly exploratory.“This was because city hall had not yet received a mandate from council to officially begin negotiations with (RendezVous) at the time,” Ruszkowski said in an email.“In that context, numerous options for the development of the site were discussed; including, for instance, the adoption of Edmonton’s arena development model. When informed that this was impossible, (RendezVous) moved on.“At no time did CSMI or Eugene Melnyk demand the city build an arena.”The mayor’s remarks “suggest a double standard,” Ruszkowski said, pointing to the city’s development partnership with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG) at Lansdowne Park.The city borrowed $154 million to renovate TD Place stadium, where OSEG is the chief tenant, and create the urban park.OSEG, whose partnership includes Trinity founder John Ruddy, “has had operational problems,” Ruszkowski said, and he also pointed to reported issues with stadium construction and business disputes.(The last update on the Lansdowne partnership provided at city hall in mid-2017 revealed OSEG ended 2016 with a net loss of $14.4 million, after registering a net loss of $12.6 million in 2015. The arena’s structural steel was found to be heavily corroded during the Lansdowne redevelopment, and there was damage reported after a concert held there in 2016.)Watson later rebuffed Ruszkowski’s criticisms in a separate interview with this newspaper.“It’s a completely different scenario,” Watson said.“We own Lansdowne. We don’t own LeBreton Flats. Of course we’re going to partner to revitalize a city-owned asset, and by the way, that has been a phenomenal success in terms of attendance, job creation and bringing life to Lansdowne Park, so I think it’s more of a dig against his partner, Mr. Ruddy, than anything else.”CSMI is suing Ruddy, Trinity companies and RendezVous project management consultant Graham Bird over the LeBreton Flats redevelopment and the Trinity-involved project at 900 Albert St.In the interview, Watson said the Senators wanted even more things for free from city hall, including free development charges and free property taxes.The Senators also didn’t want to include a ticket levy for transit, similar to what ticket holders for Redblacks games pay, according to Watson.Watson liked that Ruszkowski brought up the Edmonton scenario, in which the municipal government paid millions for an arena development.“The very fact that he’s admitting they wanted to follow the Edmonton model, which was heavy subsidization by a city, is the proof that was their opening bid,” Watson said.Watson has maintained since the beginning of the LeBreton Flats process that property-tax money shouldn’t fund the construction of an arena for the NHL.There are legitimate municipal expenses when it comes to the public realm, such as streets and sidewalks, but not an arena, Watson said.Watson for the first time addressed the fallout from CSMI’s lawsuit, which alleges Ruddy and Bird used the LeBreton Flats development to bolster the future Trinity-led 65-storey complex at 900 Albert St. across from LeBreton Flats.Ruddy and Bird have denied the allegations, which haven’t been tested in court.Watson isn’t named as a defendant in the lawsuit, but the statement of claim includes a section alleging the mayor’s chief of staff, Serge Arpin, told CSMI that withdrawing from the LeBreton Flats redevelopment during the 2018 municipal election campaign would “sever” the relationship between Watson and Melnyk.Watson declined to comment on those allegations. He said he sees himself as a mediator to help make the LeBreton project happen.The 41-page lawsuit was filed last Friday after the NCC board the previous day gave RendezVous until the next board meeting in January to resolve the private consortium’s internal bickering. Melnyk and Ruddy are the main partners in RendezVous.Watson said he was “disappointed” by the lawsuit.“I think there was a lot of enthusiastic support for the revitalization. The arena, the housing, the retail, the LRT stops, all on one site,” Watson said.“My job is to continue to work with the NCC, work with the Government of Canada and the private sector, to ensure we don’t lose this once-in-a-generation opportunity to revitalize that important piece of land.”Watson, who supports the Senators moving downtown, said he believes he can work with Melnyk if the hockey club remains in the redevelopment picture, although the mayor acknowledged it’s unlikely the NCC board will continue with the current RendezVous structure.The mayor is a non-voting member of the NCC board.Melnyk’s lawsuit suggests the future saturation of the housing market around LeBreton Flats, particularly considering the massive 900 Albert project, would damage the viability of the redevelopment.Council approved the development application for 900 Albert earlier this year.According to Watson, “there is more than ample space for competition” in the real estate market.Watson said planning decisions made by council won’t be carried out, in some cases, for several years.“The thing I hear over and over again right now from the real estate agents that I speak to, and I go to their meetings and so on, and they have a pretty good sense what’s going on in the real estate market, there is a clear shortage of properties for sale,” Watson said.“It is a sellers’ market out there. The prices are going up because there’s a very small inventory on the market.”Watson said baby boomers are downsizing and want to live in condos or apartments in the downtown area.
An artist’s rendering envisions the $3.5-billion LeBreton Flats development proposal by RendezVous Group, dubbed IllumiNATION LeBreton.
From left: NCC chair Marc Seaman, NCC CEO Mark Kristmanson, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and Mayor Jim Watson listen to speakers at the board of trade breakfast on Wednesday.
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